POUND RIDGE, N.Y. – On Wednesday afternoon Ruth Mendes, a member of The Pound Ridge Jewish Community, was busy getting her house ready for Passover. Guests would be arriving Friday night for the traditional dinner known as the Seder.
Passover, which begins Friday at sundown, is the eight-day-long Jewish holiday that marks the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and the slavery they endured at the hands of the pharaoh. It celebrates the story of Moses, who led the Children of Israel across the Red Sea and into the Promised Land.
“You know what they call the 11th plague?” Mendes asked. “Matzo crumbs.”
The plagues Mendes jokingly refers to are, of course, the Ten Plagues that God sent to persuade the pharaoh to release the Israelites – all part of the Passover story. The 10th plague was death of the first born of all Egyptians. To escape it, Israelites had to place the blood of a lamb on the door. If they did, the angel of death would “pass over” them. The matzo that Mendes mentions is the unleavened bread at the heart of the food-centric holiday.
Passover features the traditional Seder dinner on the first two nights of the holiday. The food served is symbolic of the Passover story.
“We are instructed at the Seder that we ourselves stood at Mount Sinai” where Moses received the Ten Commandments, Mendes said. “The food and the whole Seder meal tells that story.”
Mendes said that chopped fruit and nuts are served to symbolize the mortar the slaves used to make bricks. Bitter herbs, such as horseradish, are served to represent the bitterness of slavery. Hard-boiled eggs (symbolizing rebirth) are served in saltwater (the tears of the slaves). Another traditional food item is the shank bone, which Mendes says stands for the sacrifice of the temple – the lamb on the altar. Then there is the matzo – the unleavened bread that represents the bread the Israelites made because there was no time to let it rise.
“The Seder is a very, very important family gathering, and it has many variations,” Mendes said. “Every community has its own traditions.”
Mendes said The Pound Ridge Jewish Community has no formal congregation-wide celebration or event to mark Passover. The community is a Reform chavurah – from “chaver,” meaning “friend” – that meets at members’ homes in the Pound Ridge area and holds regular services.
Mendes said each family and their friends observe the holiday in their own homes. She said Passover is important from the perspective of getting children involved in the faith.
“It’s to draw them in and make them an intrinsic part,” she said. “One of the things we do is hide one of the matzos. The kids get to look for it, and the one who finds it wins a prize.”